When I was eleven, the most exciting feature of my secondary school was that it had an animal house. After eating, we could spend our lunch hour playing with guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas. We had never had pets at home and I can remember running from the lunch hall because I simply couldn’t wait to get there. Until one day, when I overheard some older girls wondering why the year sevens ran everywhere and I realised it was not the done thing. From then on, running was only undertaken reluctantly as a form of exercise or to catch public transport.
When I was twelve, we each had to give ten minute presentations to our English class as practice for public speaking. My first was on land reclamation in the Netherlands and nestled comfortably between a lengthy and evangelical presentation about canal boating and a very detailed overview of a local football club. By round two, the tedium was hard to bear and I asked if the speech had to be factual; it didn’t, so I had great fun making up a fictional world to talk about, thinking about its culture, ethics and government. Until it came to questions, when the main one seemed to be ‘why are you so weird?’ and I realised that imagination was not the done thing. From then on, assignments were for blending in and being instantly forgettable.
When I started university I had a whole rainbow of corduroy trousers and lots of quirky tops that were bought in Camden Market and didn’t always hold their colour. I loved browsing the stalls for something new, something I’d never seen anybody else wearing and pairing it with something unexpected. Until one day some friends were talking about what they were going to wear out that evening, and one commented that the conversation was pointless as they always all wore the same thing. And that night I noticed that they were all dressed in blue jeans and black tops, like a uniform, and realised that quirky was not the done thing. From then on, although I couldn’t resist a splash of colour, I chose clothes that looked (at least approximately) like everyone else’s.
Part of me is relieved that I had these realisations and learned to fit in. But then I see my eight year old, who chose black and green trainers for school sports, and is upset because the other girls think it odd that they’re not pink or purple. Or my six year old who likes to dance through the house in a flailing whirlwind of limbs but will very soon realise it is not the done thing and instead walk around demurely. These ‘corrections’ will help them to fit in, but will also take from them something of themselves.
Fitting in can make us feel safe and part of a community. But it can also stifle our identity and even stop us from seeking help or support when we need it. Although it is important to understand the rules that those around us live by, there are circumstances when we really should try to break them. We should be able to talk openly about miscarriages and fertility. Marital problems should not be the preserve of the divorced; many happy couples have had their troubles but it is not the done thing to talk about it. Mental health issues should not attract stigma or embarrassment, nor should physical symptoms or differences.
When actually examined, many of the ‘rules’ that we take for granted make no sense at all. When talking to a colleague or client, why must we pretend to be one-dimensional to seem professional? A more genuine connection would improve those relationships and everyone’s experience of the workplace. Why must we dress in shoes that are entirely unsuitable for walking or tie strips of silk in restrictive knots around our necks? These traditions are impractical and uncomfortable as well as reinforcing traditional gender roles and limiting diversity. Why is it perfectly acceptable to talk about skin cancer but not anal cancer, to confide in a friend about having trouble with eyesight or hearing, but not with the vas deferens or fallopian tubes, let alone our mental health? This squeamishness can add embarrassment and loneliness to an already difficult situation.
Today is Time to Talk Day and even if it’s not the done thing, perhaps we could make the effort to speak out or be available to listen, taking the first steps to changing the rules that bind us all.